There is gold in them there books! I stumbled upon a clip of Desi Arnaz on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson while surfing the internet. I didn’t catch the year, but a couple of things stood out. First, Johnny wore a hip white coat with a sparkly embroidered design on either side of the lapels instead of his standard suit and tie. A down-to-his-belt length silk scare loosely knotted just below his neck completed the ensemble.* Johnny’s hair was longer and whiter than I can remember seeing it in the past. The clip came from far enough back in time that Johnny could be seen lighting up a cigarette as they broke for a commercial. Arnaz, who was smoking one of those big Cuban cigars he was known for, was flanked on his right (stage left to the viewing audience) by Carson’s sidekick Ed McMahon, ‘Mr. Warmth’ – Don Rickles, and ‘Mr. Everything’ – Bob Hope. During their back and forth banter, Johnny held up a copy of A Book written by Arnez and they began discussing some of the anecdotes from the book. Yes, that is the actual title – it was released in 1976 by William Morrow, so perhaps that gives us a little bit of a hint on the date of his appearance on The Tonight Show. (*Further investigation explained Carson’s unusual outfit – he had done a parody of the ‘Rhinestone country stars’ of the day earlier in the show).
I grew up watching Arnaz opposite his wife Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy which meant getting large doses of him leading his band while playing his signature conga drum. The short version he told Carson revealing why he began playing the conga drum while fronting his band was priceless. Desi had been performing with the Siboney Septet for $50 a week in Miami Beach when Xavier Cugat saw him and offered him a job as his band’s singer for $25 per week. It was a step down for Arnaz moneywise but the wider exposure he would get in Cugat’s band made him take the plunge. He proved popular enough for Cugat to renegotiate his wage to $35 a week.
The arrangement worked for a while until Desi finally told Cugat he was starving on these lower wages and was going to go back to fronting his own band. Xavier was gracious, telling him he could bill his new act as ‘Desi Arnaz from the Xavier Cugat Orchestra’. Arnaz had to agree to pay a weekly royalty for the use of the name. Desi offered him $25 per week and when Xavier asked, “Why only $25?” Desi displayed his head for business. He told Cugat he was giving him the same deal Xavier had given him. “If we do well, we can renegotiate,” Desi told him (the same line Cugat had used when he hired him).
Arnaz put together a throw together rumba band for an ‘audition’ at a club in Miami including a sax player, violinist, piano player, and a stand up bass. Two of the musicians were not even Latin. In the 1930s, it was not uncommon for groups to be given a contract for a period of time as a long term ‘audition’. Desi’s new group was fired after one night. He said he wasn’t surprised because they had no charts, had not rehearsed, and hardly knew each other when they debuted at the club. Even so, Arnaz was surprised when he came off stage and the owner told him, “You are fired. That was terrible.” Arnaz asked for one more chance. The next night, he assigned each member of the band a piece of Latin percussion. He recalled his younger days (back in Cuba) when people would bang on anything from pots and pans to furniture to create rhythms. He told Johnny, “I gave the violin player, who may have thought he was Jascha Heiftz, a couple of pans and some sticks. He said, ‘What do I do with these?’ and I said, ‘Go tinka-tinka-tinka on them.’” Desi opted for the conga drum, reasoning, “If I stood out front and made a lot of noise, it would cover up the awful sound we were making as a band.” It was also a novel approach as the conga drum wasn’t well known in the United States (yet). It worked well enough to extend the gig, which gave them more time to rehearse an actual act. Quite accidentally, it also supplied Desi Arnez with his signature look. From then on, early all his promotional photos would picture him with his conga drum as word of his popular rumba band spread both on TV and when they toured one side of America to the other..
Hearing Desi tell the Cugat story, I thought, “That’s not only funny, it is interesting,” so I resolved to see if I could find a copy of A Book. My wife is always tracking down books via the interlibrary loan service, and sure enough, she found a copy at the McMillan Township Library. Unfortunately, they are not part of the cooperative that shares books with other libraries so my next stop was the Ontonagon Township Library to see if Sarah the librarian could find me a copy. She was the one that informed me that, “Yes, I see McMillan has it, but they are not part of the lending library cooperative. Apparently, they are also the only library in Michigan that has a copy!” I thanked her for the information and set out to see if I could score a copy from an online bookstore somewhere.
A Book was originally published in 1976, so I thought finding a used copy would probably be my only path. Lo and behold, several sites popped up offering hardcopy editions…priced between $426 and $1,000! There are audio book editions for as little as $9.99 but I am not much of a book listener. I will keep looking, but if I happen upon a reasonably priced used copy, I may still pick it up. In the meantime, I started searching for more information on Desi Arnaz the cheaper way via the internet. Perhaps I should have encouraged the McMillian library to lock up their now quite valuable copy of A Book.
Born on March 2, 1917 in Santiago, Cuba, his full name was Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III. His father was a powerful politician and his mother was known to be a beautiful woman. His grandfather was one of the founders of the Bacardi Rum company. The Arnaz family were wealthy enough to have their son’s career mapped out for him: study law at Notre Dame in Indiana and then return home to open a practice. The plan changed drastically on August 12, 1933 when Fulgencio Batista organized a coup and became el Presidente of Cuba. With Desi Sr. jailed, their money and property confiscated, sixteen-year-old Desi III and his mother fled to Miami where they would spend the next six months negotiating his father’s release. School was tough for a newly arrived immigrant who barely spoke English. Desi also had to work after school to help pay the rent in their shabby boarding house apartment. Arnaz first worked cleaning bird cages, and later found jobs in a railyard, as a bookkeeper, driving a taxi, and as a truck driver to help make ends meet. With law school now out of the picture, he borrowed a suit and auditioned as a singer for the house band at the same tony Roney Plaza Hotel where Cugat would later see him perform.
Once Desi’s new post-Cugat band became more widely known, they were hired to headline at the La Conga Cafe in New York pulling in $750 per week. It would not take long for them to begin touring some of the best clubs in America, including NYC’s famous Copacabana. Arnaz was discovered at the La Conga by Richared Rogers and Lorenz Hart who put him in their new Broadway musical, Too Many Girls. It was at the Copa where he was discovered again, this time by RKO Pictures Studio’s George Abbot. RKO had purchased the film rights to the musical Too Many Girls and Abbot invited Arnaz to Hollywood to recreate his character opposite the female lead, RKO contract player Lucille Ball. They became romantically involved soon after they met and everyone from the gossip columnists to the RKO suits thought their relationship was a bad idea. They continued to see each other after the film was finished, even when their careers took them to different parts of the country. Ball met up with Arnaz in New York City on November 14, 1940 when she visited the city on a personal appearance tour. After Desi’s last show at the Roxy Theater, the pair eloped and were married by a justice of the peace at the Byram River Beagle Club in Greenwich, Connecticut. Even their close friends thought it wouldn’t last two weeks while the gossip columnists went into speculation overdrive .
That their union lasted until 1960 is surprising because, with Lucy being tied to Hollywood and Desi’s continued touring, they were in a loop of constant separation. Desi later estimated they spent the equivalent of three years together during their first eleven years as a married couple. Neither of their film careers took off, but Desi still did notable turns in movies like Cuban Pete and Holiday in Havana (more or less playing himself and performing his music). He was able to settle down some when he replaced Stan Kenton as the bandleader and musical director for Bob Hope’s radio show in 1947, but 1948 found him back on the road. Ball, who was doing a successful run on CBS radio with a program called My Favorite Husband, saw a way for them to spend even more time together. When CBS approached her about moving the radio show to television in 1949, she agreed on one condition; they cast Arnaz as her husband. CBS rejected the idea believing an American woman married to a Cuban orchestra leader would not be acceptable to their audience. The couple laid this notion to rest by developing a vaudeville revue featuring comic routines about a woman trying to crash her bandleader husband’s show. Vaudeville was on its last legs at the time, but the plan worked. People loved the odd couple concept and word eventually leaked back to the executives at CBS.
The Lucy-Desi dynamic was soon on display in CBS’s new hit comedy, I Love Lucy. Many of the early episodes seen were basically rewrites of the comedy sketches they had done in their revue. The combination of Lucy’s antics and Desi’s music performed at the fictional Tropicana nightclub were ratings gold for CBS who, as we noted, nearly killed their golden goose before it laid any eggs. Desi wasn’t idle between his screen shots – he spent time behind the cameras learning the business from the bottom up. Working as the head of their own Desilu Productions, he showed he had a head for the business; as a television executive, he was a natural. Arnaz went on to produce many other hit series including December Bride, Our Miss Brooks, The Untouchables, and The Danny Thomas Show. Desi also pioneered the ‘three-camera technique’ used to film situation comedies that is still in use today. Desi Arnaz was an entertainment pioneer on many different fronts.
So what went wrong with Desi and Lucy and DesiLu Productions? The usual power couple difficulties that seem to be par for the course in Hollywood. The problems appeared as early as 1944 when Lucy was convinced Desi was being unfaithful and was coming home drunk on too many occasions. She filed for divorce but they reconciled before the paperwork became final. The turbulence continued throughout their twenty years together and as Desi recounted in his memoir, “The marriage began to collapse under the strain of my growing problems with alcohol, gambling, and infidelity. The combined pressures of managing the production company and supervising the day-to-day operations greatly worsened as the company grew larger.” Arnaz felt compelled to seek outlets to alleviate the stress which in turn caused further strains on their marriage. When they divorced in 1960, they worked out an agreement that resulted in Lucy buying out his portion of DesiLu.
Arnaz and Ball remained friends even after they both married other spouses. Desi’s second wife, Edith died of cancer in 1985 at age 67 – they had been married for 22 years. It was only after Edith’s death that Desi’s children talked him into seeking treatment for his decades-long alcohol addiction. It was another bad habit, however, that finally did him in. After years of smoking cigarettes on the set of I Love Lucy and the cigars (he favored these during appearances and social events until his sixties), Desi was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986. His last conversation with Lucy took place on what would have been their 46th anniversary when they spoke by phone. Their daughter Lucie was at his side constantly during his last days and he died in her arms on December 2, 1986. His death came just two days after his last conversation with Lucy and five days before Ball received her Kennedy Center Honors.
Desi Arnaz was a trailblazer in the TV and film industry though many of his contributions were subtle. Desi retained his Cuban accent even though he lived in the United States for seventy years. The decision was made to not make fun of his accent in the I Love Lucy series at a time when comedies often employed racial stereotyping to get laughs. Arnaz said the only exception came when Lucy would mimic Ricky Ricardo’s accent – these jokes only worked when Lucy delivered them. Their efforts to maintain ‘basic good taste’ included refraining from ethnic jokes or humor based on physical handicaps or mental disabilities. In 1956, Desi won a Golden Globe (Best Television Achievement) for helping shape American comedy from both in front of and behind the camera. He would be granted two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – one for his contributions for motion pictures and one for his work in television. I did see one of these while visiting the WOAS West Coast Bureau in Los Angeles – it had the outline of an old time movie camera on it so you can figure which one it was.
Desi Arnaz has been portrayed by multiple actors in various projects. In The Mambo Kings movie of 1992, he was played by his son, Desi Jr.. Maurice Benard took on his role in the 1991 TV film Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter. The Desi part in the 2003 film Lucy was covered by Danny Pino. A 2018 take called I Love Lucy: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Sitcom was a comedic take on how they battled to get the show on the air with Sara Drew as Lucy and Oscar Nunez as Arnaz. Google celebrated what would have been Desi’s 102nd birthday with a special Google doodle on March 2, 2019. Javier Bardem made the most recent portrayal opposite Nicole Kidman in the 2021 biographical film Being the Ricardos for which Bardem was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Desi Arnaz was certainly no one trick pony. He was an Army veteran who was prevented from serving overseas due to injuries incurred before he joined up and during basic training. He was, however, a valuable USO asset during World War II – Desi was able to use his contacts to sign up major performers to entertain the troops. He and his second wife got involved with Thoroughbred horse racing and breeding during their semi-retirement in Del Mar, CA. Desi spent time teaching production techniques at the university level and contributed generously to charitable and nonprofit organizations including San Diego State University.
A couple of other nuggets about Ball and Arnaz turned up as I was researching this article. A friend who regularly visits Las Vegas told us he saw Lucille Ball later in her life frequenting the casinos there. Apparently Desi wasn’t the only one who enjoyed gambling. Desi is also credited with making the ‘conga line’ dance popular in America, debuting it at the La Conga club (where else?). Desi and his son Desi, Jr hosted Saturday Night Live on February 21, 1976 where they did spoofs of both I Love Lucy and The Untouchables. Desi also did a dramatic reading of Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky which, in his heavy Cuban accent was rendered as ‘Habberwocky’. The younger Desi played the drums with the SNL house band and Desi the elder performed two of his signature rumba tunes, Babalu and Cuban Pete. Fittingly, the broadcast ended with him leading the entire cast in a conga line that snaked through the SNL studio.
Top Piece Video: Desi Arnaz Sr. performing Babalu in true Rumba style!